Sydney has just played host to a local chapter of Failcon, and it was a great event. Two hundred or so entrepreneurs and creatives crammed in to hear a diverse mix of speakers talk (or sing) about failure. I got a lot out of it, and wanted to share some of the insights…

An opportunity for honesty

Matt Perry loved that we finally had a forum that encourages honest stories about business and failure, rather than the typical filtered and sanitised tales we typically hear and share. For Matt, failure is another term for learning.

It’s interesting that while we keep asking brands for more authenticity, the stories we share from those brands are usually very one sided. So here’s to using failure as a catalyst for honesty…

Failure is an event, not a person or a character trait

Paul Breen reminded us that we do need to divorce failure from ourselves. It’s an event, usually brought on by incorrect assumptions or complacency, but it does not forever brand the person failing as a failure.

Fail often. Fail fast. Fail inexpensively

If you spend your life trying to avoid any small failure, you’re probably setting yourself up for an almighty one. We heard Ben Rennie and others talk about the need to experiment often, recognise failures quickly, and learn to adapt and course correct as you go. My favorite quote along these lines is:

“Put one dumb foot in front of the other and coursecorrect as you go.” 

– Barry Diller

WD40 stands for 39 failures

Mick Liubinskas‘ high energy workshop retold the story of WD40, which stands for Water Displacement formula attempt 40. If you think you’ll hit your plan first go, you probably need a reality check.

Get a reality check

While it’s great to shoot for the stars, if you don’t even have an aeroplane, let alone a spaceship, you might be setting yourself up for failure. Do some research, understand the odds, and then make informed (and hopefully still ambitious) plans for which you understand the chances of reaching.

It’s really easy to fail – just try to be the next Facebook. If your expectations are Everest like, and anything less is failure, then you’ll most probably fail (in a bad way).

Understand your objectives

Understand the difference between your objectives and your tactics. If your objective is to gain life experience by sailing to Tasmania, and your tactic is to do it in a yacht with a friend, then you can bounce over and break through all sorts of failures on the way, and still reach your objective.

Broken yacht? Get another. Sick friend? Convince another. Crazy storm brewing? Wait it out.

Perhaps the most inspiring examples of sensible objectives came from Galvin Scott Davis. Rather than setting his end goals as getting a particular story made into a particular movie, his goals seemed to be to share great stories with an appreciative audience. This meant that numerous set-backs in any particular plan could be adjusted and altered to find another way through.

Changing tack vs changing goal

When you understand the difference between objectives and tactics, you find a way to resolve the conflict between persistence and sensibleness.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Benjamin Franklin

If you have a dumb idea, incomplete skills and poor resources, and you’re staring down the chasm of complete financial failure, it might genuinely be time to reassess. Better still is if before you start down that track, you understand the real objective of what you’re shooting for (which should rarely be a destination goal). Then you research your chances, and start out on a plan with contingency, you’re much more likely to still be happy at the end of it.

Don’t waste your youth

Rosso made the point that the time in your life when you have ideas and experience, yet still have energy and reasonably minimal responsibilities, is generally between 28 to 38 years old (give or take a few years). If you waste this period, it’s going to be a lot harder to be a revolutionary entrepreneur later in life.

This is also a prod to think about wasted opportunity. If you’re in a crap job, or are flogging a business that doesn’t have customers who love it, you should probably pivot or move on. Like now.

Hungry for profit, patient for growth

We heard the brave and ambitious journey of Rebekah Campbell, as she takes scores of investors on a path to hunt out a big market that might exist for a URL. She’s made ambitious projects work before, through massive amounts of work and determination, but I would never have that sort of courage or staying power to keep persisting with so much money on the line.

Clayton Christensen, Eric Ries, Paul Graham, Seth Godin and a growing flood of entrepreneurs would instead encourage us to be hungry for profit and patient for growth. Rather than trying to change the world before we even know in which way, they’d encourage us to try really hard to find a small group of people that we can stoke, find out what they’ll pay for, and then see if your solution can be scaled up from there.

A partner helps

Seeing Matt and Pip from The Loop helped me reflect on how great a compatible business partner or two can be. Startups are a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures, and having trustworthy and committed partners helps share that burden (and plug those gaps!). Those guys had incredible energy and synergistic skills, which helped them continually adjust and find a path that looks very likely to succeed.

Don’t rely on handouts

Matt and Pip also shared the story of hundreds of hours trying to get a government grant, that resulted in zero return. They suggest that if your business plan relies on artificial crutches, you should probably reassess your plan. That sounds like good advice to me.

Startups are not easy

Anyone that thinks a startup can be done on 8 hours work a day is probably wrong. The amazing crew sharing stories all worked their butts off. Knowing that most businesses fail, you should probably only get into entrepreneurship if you enjoy the journey more than the destination. If you want an easy life, don’t be an entrepreneur.

Failure as a signal for resilience

And the last take away is the one that for me probably most sums up the benefits of being open about failure. Rhonda Brighton-Hall spoke about how when they hire CEO’s and their senior most positions, they look for evidence of failures as a signal that the leaders will have built the resilience necessary for leading.

Leading a business is a brutal game. You have to work your butt off, deal with the roller-coaster of emotions, and somehow stay focused on your objectives through all this. If you don’t have resilience, built through broad experiences, you’re going to struggle.

There was of course loads more I gained from the day, but these are some of the highlights I most wanted to share.